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Water and Indigenous people: “I’m tired of being an afterthought”

water indigenous people
Tati Tati Wadi Wadi assessment, at Margooya Lagoon

OXYGEN FILES: The problems of water mismanagement go back a long way, but one thing is sure, building dams then praying for rain is not a rational solution. According to Kamilaroi water scientist, Bradley Moggridge, Indigenous knowledge-holders should be “front and centre” in decision making around water.


When the freshwater mussels started dropping off, and when low flow periods were getting longer so the kids couldn’t swim, the Barkindji and other Traditional Owners along rivers in the in rivers in the Murray Darling Basin knew the rivers were in trouble and they tried to alert the authorities.

But according to Griffith University Professor Sue Jackson, it wasn’t until the mass fish kills at Menindee happened last summer that agencies such as the federal government sat up and noticed there was a crisis.

Aboriginal knowledge about our waterways is typically not given much weight, despite the fact Aboriginal people have thousands of years of science, experience and observation of local environmental conditions to refer to.

Even this week’s announcement of the Native fish emergency response plan by federal water minister, David Littleproud,  does not integrate the living management legacy of Aboriginal people.

Part of Littleproud’s package is giving Traditional Owners management of fish hatcheries at Menindee and St George for key native fish species as part of a plan to rebuild populations.

In a joint statement with Professor Lesley Head from University of Melbourne, Jackson said that “in the absence of systemic action to improve river health, [Traditional Owners] are being asked to smooth the dying pillow of their own Country.”

“The Native Fish Emergency Response Plan 2019-20 is welcome, but emergency responses will become the norm rather than the exception unless the longer-term issues depleting river health are addressed.”

Jackson told The Fifth Estate the crux of the matter is 20 years or more of unsustainable water extraction from the top of the catchment by the big irrigators.

Changing this dynamic is proving almost impossible, as there are “very powerful forces at work” trying to steer water management in a certain direction.

The environmental collapse of the lower Darling, the subject of two inquiries this year, one led by the Australian Academy of Sciences and one by the federal government, was something Aboriginal groups had seen coming.

But their attempts to raise the alarm got “very little attention,” Jackson says.

She says it is quite cynical of the government to ignore Aboriginal pleas, and then only after devastating events such as the Menindee fish kill present them with an opportunity to be involved in the restoration.

It is “no great act of recognition” to allow a river system to be destroyed and then offer a band-aid like it’s a gift.

Jackson says there is a need for serious action to prevent the ongoing decline of the river system.

However, this is not the focus of the NSW state government or the federal government.

Victoria gets it and the Northern Territory is making good moves

In contrast, Victoria has made substantial steps towards integrating Indigenous water management approaches in its water planning, Jackson says.

And this week the Northern Territory government announced it is ensuring water is reserved for future Aboriginal economic development and enterprise, through the passing of the Water Further Amendment Bill 2019.

The legislation establishes Aboriginal economic development as a new beneficial use category in the Water Act 1992, paving the way for water in new allocation plans to be assigned to Aboriginal water reserves, capturing the Strategic Aboriginal Water Reserves Policy Framework.

The Strategic Aboriginal Water Reserves Policy launched in October 2017 aims to ensure that Aboriginal people with rights and interests in land with access to water, have water reserved into the future, until they are ready to take or trade that water.

NT Minister for Environment and Natural Resources, Eva Lawler, says the government saw the opportunities the policy could create for Aboriginal people and the jobs on country it would support.

“This is about providing an opportunity for Aboriginal Territorians to access water resources in water allocation plan areas.” 

It’s not just a moral issue, it’s actually a scientific one

Jackson says Indigenous people have a “lot to offer” in terms of better approaches to water management.

The deep connection to the riverine environment that is part of the abiding concern to care for Country is a “very important and consistent motivation”.

Water is also vital for the survival of Aboriginal communities and towns with a majority Aboriginal population. Jackson points out that there many of these settlements were experiencing dire water issues long before Dubbo and Armidale’s water woes hit the headlines.

People in Walgett have been relying on bottled water since May last year [2018].

Aboriginal people in Northern NSW have been talking to scientists and historians for years about the state of the waterways, Jackson says. They reported rivers running backwards because of the volumes being extracted for irrigation and other purposes.

The growing number of dams on farms has also had an impact and affected seasonal flows.

Sustainable water management means recognising the importance of the Indigenous perspective. This is a long-term view.

“The communities I work in, people always remind me that scientists and planners need to think about their obligations to future generations of any form of life,” Jackson says.

We also “can’t just take the current moment” as a baseline but need to put thinking into the historical perspective and the long-term trends.

Murray-Darling Basin Management Authority has appointed a permanent Indigenous board member

Alongside Kamilaroi water scientist, Bradley Moggridge, Jackson co-edited a special edition of the Australasian Journal of Environmental Management released this week that is devoted to Indigenous water management.

Moggridge says it is a first for environmental and water journals.

In the editorial, Moggridge and Jackson note areas where there has been progress, including the decision by the Murray-Darling Basin Management Authority to appoint a permanent Indigenous board member.

For all the progress, they also state that in NSW and at a federal level the tide has turned backward somewhat.

An article in the journal co-authored by Moggridge notes that the “demise of the Aboriginal Water Unit from NSW’s water sector represents a lost opportunity that is similar to that experienced when the Abbott Government abolished the First People’s Water Engagement Council (2010–2014), leaving the field with no national forum for representing Indigenous peoples’ positions, perspectives or policies to the government.”

Jackson and Moggridge say “despite the strides forward in consultation and engagement, Aboriginal nations remain greatly constrained in their ability to shape the use and management of water.”

Moggridge tells The Fifth Estate NSW Aboriginal communities had the right to access water separated from Native Title.

So they may have been able to obtain Native Title to vacant Crown land under the legislation, but even if the land had waterway frontage, the right to take water for economic purposes such as growing bush tucker was not part of the deal.

Those water rights had to be purchased from the water trading market.

He says the rules around cultural water allocations in NSW are restrictive in that they define the uses quite narrowly.

The other factor at work is the reality that back in his mother’s and grandmother’s day, “Aboriginal people weren’t human”.

By the time those laws changed, and Aboriginal people had freedom of movement, the right to vote and the right to own land, “all the good land was gone”.

Dam it and damn the consequences

This week brings another example of lack of consultation around water management in the form of the federal and NSW governments’ joint announcement of the fast-tracking of more dams as part of a goal to improve water security for irrigators and agriculture.

Though the dams will impact flows further down the state’s river systems, including flows into the lower Murray-Darling, the executive officer of Murray Lower Darling Rivers Indigenous Nations (MLDRIN), Will Mooney, told The Fifth Estate there has been no consultation yet with MLDRIN Traditional Owner groups ahead of the plans being announced.

The tone of the media release, which promises to remove “all obstacles” to the dams being built “doesn’t sound promising,” Mooney says.

It probably indicates that Native Title matters or environmental concerns will be swept to one side.

More dams are also unlikely to fix the systemic issues around water management, and in fact may make the problems worse.

“It’s about more infrastructure and delivery of infrastructure… in a system that is already over-allocated and stressed,” Mooney says.

“More concrete” as a way of addressing fundamental mismanagement of water allocations is not something MLDRIN is in favour of.

There are also concerns about the long-term success of the native fisheries initiative.

“The critical issue is there is no point breeding native fish if there are not going to be sufficient flows to sustain them.”

The breeding program also leaves out other key aquatic species including freshwater mussels, turtles, aquatic plants and the “entire network that supports the iconic fish species”.   

Mooney says this kind of approach is evidence of why we need “citizen science” that is “owner led” to monitor and report on ecosystem health in the MDB.

MLDRIN members utilise the Aboriginal Waterways Assessment Tool to go out on Country and visit sites and assess ecological and cultural health.

This data and the approach “prioritises and values the roles of Traditional Owners,” Mooney says.

“It foregrounds their understanding of Country and privileges their understanding of Country. I would like to see it roll out further.”

It is also important that decision-making gives adequate regard to the outcomes of this kind of investigation, he adds.

Moggridge says the dams announcement is another “knee jerk” example of the “make dams and pray for rain” approach to water management.

The historical trend to water planning in Australia has been based on responding to a crisis with a quick fix.

It’s not only the thousands of years of Indigenous knowledge being ignored. Since colonisation, the Federation drought, the World War 2 drought and the Millennium drought have occurred, but they have not shaped management thinking.

History of any kind is “not considered in the way we manage landscapes and water,” he says.

Market forces are also playing a diabolical role.

In the 1990s, policy at the national level created a market for water and separated land from water rights, Moggridge explains.

“Water became a commodity, and its value was dictated by the market and availability.”

A share was given for users, and a share for the environment.

The lion’s share in most states goes to commercial users, whereas in the Northern Territory an “80/20” rule is in place that allocates 80 per cent of flows to the environment.

Environmental flows are available to Aboriginal people for cultural purposes.

In NSW, during the Millennium drought, farmers leaving the land were selling off their water rights at prices that could be as high as $800 a megaliter – a 10-fold increase on the average of $80 per ML in the good years.

Those rights were snapped up by the big users, who then became a powerful lobbying voice.

“If people have water now, they have power. Power creates greed, and greed can determine who has access.”

The government calculations around water allocations Moggridge observes, did not take into account the impact of climate change on flows.

He points out that when decision-makers are considering the appropriate level of environmental flows for waterways, they aim to mimic pre-development levels.

“Indigenous knowledge is best-placed to inform that,” Moggridge says.

“But we are not at the table, we are not even in the room, we are not even on the same street.”

Indigenous knowledge-holders should be “front and centre” in decision making around catchments and when and where water flows, he says.

For Moggridge, being a peer-reviewer of an inquiry report like those held into the fish kills at Menindee is not enough.

“I’m tired of being an afterthought.”

When a body like the MDBA says it is testing the “best available science and credible evidence” as part of its information set – Indigenous evidence and Indigenous science needs to be part of that. The stated engagement approach of “having regard” to Indigenous knowledge and values is “not enough”.

Decision-making and planning doesn’t celebrate Indigenous knowledge, and the thousands of years Indigenous people spent testing, retesting and observing the environment to develop clear indicators that then became part of Indigenous Law.

“We are the world’s oldest living culture on the world’s driest continent, but we have no say in water management.

“Aboriginal knowledge can’t be seen [as just] myth and legend – it’s science.”

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